In the early 2000’s, the Marathi film industry was all but dead and what was known as a regional space bursting with energetic theatre traditions, dance, literature and cinema, seemed to see a cinema space stagnate and almost vanish. Then released Shwaas, and that year when the film was sent to the Academy, India ranked 6th in the Academy Awards for the category of Best Foreign Film and thanks to this turn of events, people suddenly awoke to the capability, market and creativity of the Marathi film industry (although I don’t believe an acceptance from the Academy was in anyway a validation for the good work, but it did make people take notice). What was a dying industry now had interest from investors and producers. Good actors became available and thus began what came to be known as the New Wave of Marathi films. The wave has only risen in the last two decades, producing cinematic marvel after marvel. Within a decade of Shwaas’s selection to the Academy Awards and its close win, another two Marathi films were selected for the prestigious award from India in the following decade. Those two were received with even more celebration and warmth.
The resurgence and second life of the Marathi film came with re-localization of physical spaces and globalization of themes. In the 21st century, a new crop of filmmakers began to find ground in the industry, filmmakers with film school training and technical skilled knowledge, their work influenced by varying energies like Kieslowski, Godard and Tarantino. The films were now not just cheap and low budget desperate attempts at entertainment, but large scale, well-produced art works at the center of which remained one of the most vital aspects for the craft: the story itself. These new films championed a style that was governed by the story, the script and the direction and did not rely on cheap frills and dirty marketing strategies like the films before them. Sandeep Sawant, Nagraj Manjule and Chaitanya Tamhane have become some of the voices of this new generation of filmmakers amongst many others. Hindi film industry biggies like Amitabh Bachhan and Priyanka Chopra are looking to work with and produce Marathi films and Marathi actors like Madhuri Dixit, who have earned the majority of their fame and name in the Hindi film industry, are now turning back to the “regional” film industry to act in and produce Marathi films (Bucket List, 2018). These “new” Marathi films, carrying traditions from international and Indian filmmakers, have been deeply influenced by the aesthetics of realism and are at times scathing critiques of the societal, judicial and caste-ist structures of Maharashtra (and India as a whole).
I want to talk about a film that isn’t particularly “new”. It isn’t in the theatres now and has been around a few years. Court, written and directed by Chaitanya Tamhane, which released at Cannes in 2014 and theatrically in India in early 2015, changed cinema forever. So this isn’t a review but an essay, an ode to this glorious creation. I propose to highlight how the entire film, centered on a court case and its proceedings, is actually atrial of the system itself. Amongst other features of the Marathi new wave, one of the things that these stream of films tends to do is that with there localization of spaces and globalization of themes, it is able to bring forth stories of loss, displacement, injustice and disparity by highlighting the stories of the marginalized in India and using locations that are public spaces, spaces where various strata’s and hierarchies of Indian society come together. Spaces like schools, hospitals and in this case, the courtroom, something that has been noted by not just me, but other writers too This kind of positioning of filmic elements, creates stories that resonate on a global scale yet tell stories that are close to home.
In the film, Kamble, an activist and writer, advocating for the rights of Dalits, is arrested for publicly reciting poetry that critiques the caste system and social system in India. He is brought before a judge because a manhole worker has believed to have commit suicide inspired by Kamble’s poetry, which apparently had highlighted the humiliation with which the lower castes in India must live and better than that humiliation, according to reports, Kamble believes is death. With very little proof and a lot of conjecture and assumptions, and Kamble’s arrest, it becomes clear there is little regard for freedom of speech and the state is more concerned with the supposed poetry. They believe someone could be inspired by a poem to take their own life. They are more concerned with this than they are with cross-checking facts and are susceptible to falling prey to their preconceived biases and stereotypes of people. The state demonstrates a sense of insecurity that they know that for people to realize their own misfortunes and mistreatments means danger for the existing structures to remain as they are.
People should remain oblivious and ignorant to their social realities, and in that way they remain enslaved and for this to succeed, freedom of speech, a constitutional right, becomes dangerous. Poetry that speaks the truth becomes dangerous to a state that has something to hide. What highlights their insecurity further, is that the death of the manhole worker turns out to be no suicide and no melodramatically politically inspired act of revolution, but something mundane and “normal”: the failure of the state to provide him with the right equipment to clean the sewers, resulting in various injuries and death. The reality of what happened to the manhole worker, further highlight show the state has not only failed in ensuring freedom of speech, but have also failed in valuing the lives of its people and their people’s safety.
The systematic failure of the judiciary and the outdated mess that the Indian Penal Code is is shown in some of the early hearings of the case in the film. It shows that outdated Victorian laws, ignored and unrevised for decades, live along with new and struggling developments and laws in society. These outdated traditions and laws struggle with modernity. The contradiction and complications created by this can be seen in the film. The failure of the state, judiciary and society as a whole in having been able to negotiate and meditate between ideals of tradition and the principles of modernity, are shown in the film through many such contradictions and confusions. While the two exists side by side, joint at the hip, the Mumbai of glamorous bars, Brazilian music and fruity cocktails is a very different one from the Mumbai of silent, empty streets and the homes of the manhole workers, where even crows don’t bat their wings and only darkness hangs in the air.
A popular play and critique of the justice system and police forces across the world is the Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a 20th-century Italian play by Dario Fo, which is brought to my mind when the police proceedings of the film take place. There is endless confusion, repetition and conjecture used to stereotype people based on their caste, cultural background and politics. The fact that through the prosecution and the tactics of Nutan ( the prosecutor), in the film we see that the state is so insecure, paranoid and ignorant, that it never does introspect to question the ridiculous contradictions it presents, that people should be arrested even if they entertain the idea of writing or creating material that would highlight the unfair structures of society. When Kamble is asked if he has written the poem that caused the manhole worker to go into a frenzy, he says no and when asked by Nutan if he would mind writing something “seditious” like that, he says he wouldn’t mind and somehow him entertaining an idea clearly introduced and planted within that moment by the prosecution itself, makes it acceptable for them to label him “anti-national”. The police also are shown to search people’s houses without warrants and arrest without cause. What is loving your country? When you brush the ailments of the nation under a rug, and pretend they aren’t there, while they spread the cancer or facing them head-on and eradicating the disease?
The film uses alack of background score and instead opts for letting the frames play in silence than with music. The use of silence in scenes that are framed as ridiculous, ironic, full of contradictions and violence further highlight the silences within the system which are to deal with and address these issues. The profuse of use of silence and Wes Anderson like aesthetic in the scene where members of the Goymar sect blacken Vohra, Kamble’s lawyer’s face. The leaves of the tree flutter, people avert their eyes or walk into a building and avoid the scene. They remain silent. The lawyer returns home and cries, again, in the silence and emptiness of his room and returns the next day to a largely silent and unquestioning courtroom. The silence here comes to represent the silence within the system and the ostrich syndrome with which most of the people around Vohra seem to suffer from. The most painful things, we see, are not always melodramatic and sometimes just make you implode.
It is also the positioning of the case itself within the justice system and the court too that it is notable. When we look at films that use the courtroom as their space, they usually follow the tried and tested “courtroom drama” formula, which is melodramatic and excessive in nature. The victims are always victimized further, and painted in shades of white while their lawyer is the ideal human being and flag bearer of morals, principles and righteousness. They are the damsel in distress and a knight in shining armor respectively. The prosecution takes on the work of being the villain and with that, a classic film formula is created. This can be seen in films like To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) which is a classic example of this practice. Court challenges the classical notions of a courtroom drama but also changes it to further highlight the reality of the situation and serve itself. In Court, Kamble’s case is shown to be one of many such cases. He is not special and unlike in the movies, the court proceedings don’t care much for individual cases, the judge isn’t a God-like figure but a normal Indian family man who goes on family vacations and believes in superstitious remedies for ailments and the lawyers don’t act or look like actors in a play and the defendant (Vohra) and prosecution (Nutan) are both humanized, versus one being valorized and the other being demonized. Both their private lives are shown, Vohra’s an urban, lonely and non – traditional lifestyle versus that of Nutan who goes home to cook and clean after her family after a long day of work.
Both their social classes and cultural backgrounds are displayed and somehow, their behavior in the courtrooms seems more like a function of who they are and the kind of lives they’ve lead versus one being a demon and the other a hero. Nutan, a wife and a working mother of two, being a sucker for rules and Vohra’s, a single bachelor son of doting wealthy Gujarati parents, liberal urban educated and his contemplative questioning of tradition now makes sense beyond the binaries. Here the film highlights again the failure of modernity to exist alongside tradition in India in the form of Vohra and Nutan, a space in which our social, educational and economic structures have clearly failed us as demonstrated in the lives of the lawyers. Things in the film are presented to us, unlike other courtroom films (PrimalFear, Badla, Pink) not with flair and flamboyance but as a matter of fact. The most horrific realities are told to us with a still camera, wide shots and little music, leaving so much space between us, the subject and catharsis that the audience is made to feel that something is terribly wrong. The “sacred” space of the courtroom and the blind faith in the justice system other legal shows and movies try to promote is challenged and ultimately destroyed. But isn’t that what reality is? Our lowest moments and most heartbreaking episodes occur in silence, within us, while we sit there with a smile and suffer through them. Again, we implode.
A similar kind of failure of society in mediating modernity and traditionalism is noted in other Marathi new wave films like Sairat too, wherein even a rural space in India, concepts of a modern love beyond boundaries of caste and class exist, but are always having to fight the pre-existing societal structures of feudalism, caste-ism, patriarchy and morality. In Court, a judge refuses to hear a case because a witness is wearing a half-sleeved shirt, which he deems“immoral” clothing for court. Go figure.
The earlier fact that I mentioned, that Kamble’s case is like many others and even Kamble’s case and its various permutations and combinations appear and re-appear multiple times in the system. He is not special. He is no hero. He is everyone and anyone. He is a “common man”. We see at the end, Kamble printing more written material deemed “seditious” and the police picks him up again. The choice of along shot to represent this scene eliminates all possibility of heightened emotion and vulnerability, making it rather mundane, the POV being that of someone standing at a distance within that room, observing the various things happening as life goes on normally, other people continue working, the machine keeps printing and arrests keep happening. It’s normal. It is normalized. The system stays stuck on loop while no long-term solutions are found and the same cycle of confusion and contradiction continues, with court cases piling up and the justice system lagging and understaffed. The lack of excessive passion on the side of both the policeman and Kamble when he is arrested reconfirms my faith in the belief that the failure of the state and the discomfort of the citizen has been normalized and muted as mundane in society. We are so used to it, we don’t even need to question it when it happens anymore. The police don’t bat an eyelid. The alleged criminal doesn’t either. Life goes on.
It is in this way that I believe that the film Court is not just a film about a man on trial. It is, in fact, a film in which the power structures of caste and class, the judiciary and politics, the police force and the entire system are itself on trial, their efficiency, intention, clarity and integrity questioned. The honourable Supreme Court has been instrumental in fixing broken things in the last decade, having made monumental changes and much-needed decisions. Yet, here we are, still a long way to go. We must, therefore, keep going.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.